How to Have Your Wood and Your Forest

According to a new kind of certifier, you can can help conserve forests with your purchase dollars

  • Norman Boucher
  • Aug 01, 1997
Five years ago, Chip Chapman didn't give much thought to creatures like the marbled salamander. For almost two decades, Chapman has been a forester in central New England, with small-landowner clients trying to earn money from their woodlots. The usual way of doing that in the eastern United States has been simple: Whether your forest covers 50 acres or 5 million, hire a logging crew to cut down all the big, commercially valuable species of trees.

That practice, known as "high-grading," has been the quickest way to turn trees into cash. It has also been, Chapman and others now say, a biological disaster. Removing the largest and healthiest trees from a forest robs it of its future--a process Chapman describes as "natural selection backwards." Cutting down the big oaks on a piece of land, for example, means eliminating its best acorn producers. Fewer acorns mean fewer deer and other mammals that depend on the nuts for food. Fewer big trees mean fewer nesting sites for large birds. Repeatedly high-grading a forest eventually reduces even its commercial value; the inferior trees left standing tend to produce inferior young trees.

In recent decades, many foresters in the East, including Chapman, have shifted to sustained-yield forestry. In this approach, a forester uses core samples from typical trees in a client's forest to calculate their recent rate of growth and translate it into the amount of lumber that could be sustainably removed. The emphasis is entirely on growth rate; salamanders still don't matter.

Then Chapman discovered a new approach to forestry involving third-party certification, based on the premise that some consumers will pay a little more for products made from wood that originated in a forest managed for biological diversity as well as for harvest.

He began to leave buffer zones around trees where hawks nest and to instruct loggers to stay away from bogs and even from vernal pools--those temporary puddles that are the only breeding sites of such vanishing species as the marbled salamander. "Now," says Chapman, "I put a 'W' on any tree with a raptor nest or a woodpecker cavity. And I recommend cutting only 70 percent of a forest's growth. This allows me to leave some important and varied habitat standing." Says silviculturist Robert Seymour of the University of Maine, "I've come to believe that forest certification is probably the very best way to promote and reward excellence in forestry."

In the past few years, five forest certifiers have become established worldwide, two in the United Kingdom, one in the Netherlands, and two in the United States. All five have been accredited by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international nonprofit group formed in 1993 to establish and uphold forest-certification standards. Eric Palola, a Vermont-based National Wildlife Federation resource economist, credits the FSC with giving forest certification "the organizational structure to make it viable in the international marketplace."

The FSC considers not only efficient use of logged trees and preservation of biological diversity, but social concerns such as protection of land rights of indigenous peoples. "Certification goes beyond the traditional Ôgrowth vs. removal' focus to include ecological and community factors that are essential to healthy forests," says Palola. "Is the landowner operating in the black? Do they pay taxes on time? Are they a good neighbor? Are they fair to their workers?"

Once a forest is certified, its owner can place a "well-managed" label on all wood logged from it. But the process doesn't end there. Next come annual audits, and after five years, the whole certification process is repeated. Like the original certification, it can cost a landowner anywhere from about $5,000 to $50,000 or more.

Landowners--whether individuals or companies--hire FSC-accredited groups to do the certifying. The two such U.S. groups are the nonprofit Smart Wood program of the Rainforest Alliance, based in New York, with an office in Costa Rica; and the for-profit company Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) of Oakland, California. NWF's Palola directs a collaborative effort between NWF and the Smart Wood certification program in the Northeast.

The concept of certifying forest management originated, according to Richard Donovan, Smart Wood's program director, during the tropical-wood boycotts of the 1980s. "People realized that a ban on tropical wood would not provide the solution to tropical deforestation," Donovan says. Reducing the demand for such wood lowered the economic value of the rain forest and only increased the incentive for companies to clear it for agriculture.

The certifiers apply different criteria to different specific situations. A 100-acre, mixed-hardwood forest owned by a parent hoping to finance a child's college education, for example, is managed differently from a million-acre spruce-fir tract owned by a paper company to supply pulp for its mill.

More than 2 million acres in the United States have been certified as well-managed, and in the past year, the movement has seen a growth spurt. Jay Leno's "Tonight" show desk is now made of certified wood, and environmentally conscious musicians can buy a certified Les Paul guitar. As part of the newly incorporated Forest Products Buyers Group, retailers such as Gap and Starbucks have pledged to use certified wood in their new stores.

Last winter, Massachusetts became the first state to own a certified forest when Smart Wood certified 58,000 acres around the huge Quabbin Reservoir; in doing so, the state helped counter criticism that logging around the reservoir endangered the purity of the watershed, which supplies drinking water to the Boston area. Minnesota and Pennsylvania are now seeking certification for a total of almost 2 million acres of public forests. If they succeed, they will more than double the acreage of certified forest in the nation.

Of course, forest certification has its critics. The American Forest and Paper Association, for example, thinks the industry is the best judge of how to achieve good forestry practices. Still, at least one big company has sought out the well-managed label--Seven Islands Land Company in Maine. "Retrospectively, going through the certification process was great," says Vice President John McNulty. "But it was quite nerve-racking to begin with."

In 1993, SCS sent a team of three men--including the University of Maine's Robert Seymour--to visit more than 80 sites in Seven Islands' holdings and interview the company's employees. In the end, SCS certified the company's 975,000 acres of Maine trees--the largest certified forest in the United States so far.

"We were looking for a way of increasing our income without cutting any more aggressively," McNulty explains. "We read about forest certification and thought, 'There's a market out there for this, just like there is for organic vegetables. Could we market our wood to those same people and charge them 10 cents more a foot?'" He adds, however, that the company has not yet felt enough demand for the wood to charge a premium. Rather, the well-managed label has helped Seven Islands develop a new product: certified hardwood flooring. In a market dominated by large producers, Seven Islands has gained a foothold by distinguishing itself with certification, and the company now makes about a million square feet of the flooring a year.

Few certified forests, however, have met with Seven Islands' success. Getting from logs to flooring requires that the mills and factories involved apply for another, simpler "chain-of-custody" certification to ensure that the wood in question actually ends up in the product. Seven Islands has longstanding relationships with local mills in Maine, and its value as a large customer has given it the clout to convince them to seek certification.

But left on their own, most mill owners are still not convinced that the market for certified wood is large enough to justify the bother of handling certified logs. So far, certified-wood products have reached only a tiny number of consumer stores. Seven Islands sells its flooring either directly to a customer or through a retailer in Maine. Home Depot, the huge home-supply chain, has made one of the few attempts at retailing certified-wood products, with mixed success.

Industry watchers agree that, although certified wood is widely discussed, it has so far had very little impact on the $100-billion-a-year wood-products industry. "Market penetration?" asks George Barrett, editor and publisher of the industry newspaper the Weekly Hardwood Review. "There isn't any. It's minuscule."

Just how many forest owners are willing to go through certification remains to be seen. Of the 2 million acres of forest certified in the United States, almost half belong to Seven Islands.

Sound management of even small pieces of land can be important, however, say experts, and millions of acres of U.S. forest are owned by families with woodlots of fewer than 500 acres. Certification of those forests is typically too expensive for such landowners, but by agreeing to follow a certified forester's management plan and be audited, they can label their wood well- managed. How many such small operations will opt for certification? It is probably too early to tell. Chapman, who in January became the second U.S. forester to become certified, admits that the benefits remain largely theoretical. With demand for his certified wood still low, he has not been able to convince his local mill owner to get chain-of-custody certification.

At the other end of the spectrum are huge lumber companies and paper giants, which often manage their forests more like farms than ecosystems, clear-cutting huge tracts and then planting them with hybrid species bred to grow quickly. As certification guidelines are now written, it's unlikely that very many such forests could get certified.

"We're in a pretty primitive stage when it comes to the relationship between forestry and biodiversity," says scientist John Hagan at the Manomet Observatory in Massachusetts. For the last several years, Hagan has been in Maine conducting ecological studies of logging in vast paper-company forests. "Let me make clear that I like the fact that the certification programs are coming on line," he says. "But if a paper company has invested $1 billion in a pulp mill, it is predisposed to doing a certain kind of intensive forestry--clear-cutting, for example--to keep that mill running. The question I'm trying to answer in Maine is: Can you make paper and keep ecological values on the landscape? And we just don't know that yet."

How forest certifiers will cope with such industrial forests could become clearer later this year; Canadian forest giant J.D. Irving has applied to SCS for certification of a portion of the 5 million acres it holds in New Brunswick, Maine and Nova Scotia. The company, which cuts trees for pulpwood as well as timber, supplies two-by-fours to Home Depot.

"Even if only 2-and-a-half or 5 or 10 percent of our total forest land is affected by this, that can't be bad," says Lloyd Irland, a Maine forest economist who was a peer reviewer for the Seven Islands certification. "Maybe it's not the overall solution to our forest problems, but it's a good start." Chip Chapman, for one, is willing to be patient. "In the long run, we need to ensure healthy forests," he says. "We've got to realize that wood is not just a commodity anymore."

Norman Boucher's environmental reporting has appeared in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine and Audubon.

NWF Takes to the Woods

In a unique collarboration with the smart wood program of rainforest alliance, nwf is working to protect biologically rich forests U.S. northeast most which are on privately held lands. Under this voluntary certification program, coordinates teams specialists evaluate forest practices. deserving operations earn certificate as well ability market their environmentally sound. For more information, contact: Northeast Natural Resource Center, 58 State Street, Montpelier, Vermont 05602.

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